On May 24, 2000, explosions lit up the night sky as the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Beaufort, a military outpost just a few kilometers from the Israeli-Lebanese border. Regarded as one of the most dangerous areas in which to be stationed, the fort stood at the top of a vast mountain peak, next to the ancient Beaufort Castle--long considered Lebanon's top strategic stronghold. For the past 18 years, Israeli forces had occupied the outpost -- and sacrificed dozens of soldiers to guard it -- during the First Lebanon War. When Israel's government decided to pull out, its remaining troops decimated Beaufort with six tons of explosives.
Six years later, director-writer Joseph Cedar blew up the fort again. This time the detonation took place not in Lebanon but in Israel, on the set of his Oscar-nominated drama Beaufort. Based on a novel by Ron Leshem, the film tells the story of Liraz Liberti, a young Israeli commander whose troops have spent months guarding the legendary stronghold. As Liraz prepares his men to leave, he grapples with losing the land they've risked their lives to protect.
"It's a story about a man and his mountain," says Cedar, whose film is the first Israeli submission to garner an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film since 1984. For the 39-year-old Cedar, the Oscar nod comes at the end of an emotional journey. The director was born in New York and raised in Jerusalem after age 5; like the film's hero, he served most of his mandatory military service in Lebanon during the occupation.
Cedar eventually left the military, earned a film degree at New York University, and returned to live in Tel Aviv, Israel. His first two films, 2000's Time of Favor and 2004's Campfire -- both selected as Israeli entries to the Oscars -- explored Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Yet, Cedar's military experience continued to haunt him. In 2001, when he read Leshem's piece about Liraz guarding Beaufort in its final days, he wept. "I was just really shocked and moved by how relevant his story was to my life," says Cedar, who was barely 20 when he saw friends die in battle. A week later he met with Leshem at a Tel Aviv cafĂŠ, and they agreed to adapt the story for screen.
Enlisting the Troops
Actor Oshri Cohen, who starred in Cedar's Campfire, was the director's first pick to play Liraz. "There's a very big advantage in working with an actor for the second time," says Cedar. "You've already made some of your mistakes in the previous film." Still, he auditioned hundreds of Israeli actors for the lead before going with Cohen.
Cedar's choice proved controversial. Days after the film's release, the Israeli media lambasted the director for casting several actors, including Cohen, who had not served in the military. The outrage caught Cedar off-guard. "I definitely didn't think actual military experience was something I needed from my actors," he says.
But Cedar had made sure they'd done their homework. "It was crucial for me that the cast and crew live through the intensity of being stuck on top of a mountain for an extended period of time," says the director, who started shooting Beaufort in 2006. To prepare, the team spent three weeks rehearsing at an isolated military outpost in Northern Israel. With no cell-phone reception or shower facilities, says Cedar, the immersion not only familiarized his actors with the military lifestyle but also created camaraderie. "By the time we began shooting," he says, "it really felt like they were a close platoon."
Securing the Stronghold
To re-create the massive fort, Cedar teamed up with a veteran military engineer who had helped construct the original Beaufort. The engineer hired a handful of his retired army pals, and the group set to work. "It was like Armadgeddon or the heist films, where these mythological crews get together to do one last job," says Cedar. Like the real-life fort, the structure would be built next to an ancient castle atop a remote mountain. A thousand tons of concrete later, they had created an exact replica of the structure, complete with its intricate maze of underground tunnels.
At the end of the monthlong shoot, the crew spent two days lacing the concrete set with dynamite and then doused it in more than 2,500 gallons of gasoline. Cameras readied, says Cedar, "We took our safety distance, but none of us knew what the explosion would look like." A battalion of fire engines flanked the set, poised for disaster. A fraction of a second later, the structure burst into flames.
"We got to that scene deeply understanding what the main character was going through," says Cedar, recalling the explosion. In the days leading up to the final shot, a sentimental air settled over the set as the tight-knit cast and crew packed up and pocketed little souvenirs from the set.
"Knowing that in a few days it's over and we're destroying the set," says Cedar, was the perfect parallel to Liraz's situation as he faces leaving and detonating Beaufort. "On the one hand, he just wants to get it over with. On the other hand, he knows that he'll never be part of something this significant again." For Cedar, it was a director's dream. "You want the behind-the-scenes to somehow leak into what's happening in front of the camera," he says, but this was "a miracle."
The Battle Wages On
It may have been the perfect storm, but off the set, real-life military tensions were heating up. Just weeks after the shoot wrapped, Israel invaded Lebanon, igniting a 33-day standoff with Hezbollah militia forces. Suddenly, Cedar found himself in the middle of an unanticipated media debate about the current military campaign. "It forced anyone who was speaking about the film to field questions about Lebanon," he recalls, noting that he'd hoped the film would spur a more general discussion about the nature of war. "Was it justified to leave? Was it justified to go back in? These are things that I never really thought I'd have to speak about."
Meanwhile, the mountain where they'd filmed was destroyed. Cedar still recalls his negotiations with a local nature preservation office during the shoot. "They were closely following our shoots to make sure we weren't damaging the mountain or the animals there," he says. Throughout production, he says, "We were super careful not to step on any flower or leave our footprints in the mud." When the war broke out, however, the entire site "was just bombed completely."
"The movie had closure," Cedar told The New York Times earlier this month, but the tensions that changed the lives of soldiers like Liraz and himself remain. "But then it turns out it's not over," he told the Times. "And it might never be."
Beaufort opened Jan. 18 in New York and is tentatively scheduled for a March release in Los Angeles. Cedar is currently penning his next project, a biopic of German film director and actor Veit Harlan. The director of a 1939 Nazi propaganda film, Harlan was tried for crimes against humanity.
Brooke O'Neill can be reached at email@example.com.